Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series looking at the central Kenai Peninsula’s population of homeless youth and local efforts combating the issue. Part three will cover the Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Youth occurring tonight.
Kelly King has an inside look at homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula.
That situation looks different here than in other parts of the state and even the country, King said.
“We don’t have people on the street, we don’t generally have people with signs and cans on the road,” King said. “But it does exist here, and it is widespread — it just has a different face to it locally.”
As the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s homeless liaison for the Central Peninsula, King is responsible for helping students and families in the Students in Transition Program.
“It’s entirely student driven,” King said. “The focus is to help support the students attend school and focus on school while they’re there.”
The Students in Transition Program’s goal is to provide consistent, uninterrupted education so that students can succeed in school. The program is just one of many on the Central Peninsula that help homeless students and families.
“There are so many community members and agencies working hard toward a common goal — to support these students,” King said.
The Students in Transition Program currently serves 121 students districtwide, with 93 of those students on the Central Peninsula. Of those 93 students, 35 are unaccompanied students.
“The definition of an unaccompanied student is a homeless student that’s not in the custody of their parent or legal guardian,” King said.
King has a list of 14 agencies on her desk with which she communicates on a daily basis. Those agencies are just a snapshot of what programs are available in the community.
“Sometimes we don’t realize how many partners we have because the coordination is part of our day-to-day,” King said. “But that coordination is critical to the work we’re all trying to do.”
The program can provide transportation to and from school, provide school supplies, tutor students, help families obtain documents such as birth certificates and immunization records, assist in filling out applications for housing, refer families to social service agencies, and be an advocate to help the student and family find resources in the community for food, shelter, clothing and other needs. The services are available for families and individual students.
“With our homeless teenagers that are on their own, they really need so much and have access to so little because of their age,” King said. “They don’t have a parent there with them, so that’s a population we try to support in that paperwork.”
King is able to put herself in the students’ position, and look at the situation from the other perspective.
“If I was 16 years old and had to apply for food stamps, I would be completely confused and lost,” she said. “To have someone sit down with them to go through the paperwork, hopefully that’s very helpful.”
One of those 14 organizations on King’s list is Love In the Name of Christ. The organization houses families in transition between being homeless and finding permanent housing. Families that stay at the Merit Inn often have students enrolled in the school district that King interacts with.
“They are such a valuable resource for us,” King said. “So many of our families throughout the school year will stay in the Merit Inn housing project, it’s huge.
“It’s been a lifesaver for so many families that we work with.”
Love, INC moved in to the Merit Inn in December of 2008 to provide transitional housing for families.
There are 27 tasks Love, INC can help families with. Some include filling medical prescriptions, giving rides, providing clothing and furniture.
“Different life circumstances for people that can’t have money stretch very far,” said Catherine DeLacee, Love, INC’s project manager for the Family Hope Center.
Love, INC operates in conjunction with local churches to provide these different services.
“We are the brain and churches are the hands facilitating food, transportation, prescriptions, clothing, et cetera,” DeLacee said.
Presently, there are between 75-125 men, women and children at the Merit Inn under the Family Hope Center, DeLacee said.
“It’s like a big extended family,” she said.
The goal of the center is to help families get back on track, and provide a safe place for that to happen.
“I just want you to have a better life,” DeLacee said. “You don’t have to have your mom’s life.
“Sometimes people get so far down in the hole they don’t know how to get out.”
The center will take in families that most landlords would be hesitant to. DeLacee said she sits down with every person that applies for housing to go over their past and talk about the expectations for their future.
“At least we’re giving them the chance,” DeLacee said. “No land lord with a company will rent to someone with a criminal record — so we try to stabilize them here.”
DeLacee is clear about Love, INC’s role.
“We’re not case workers,” DeLacee said. “We’re advocates.”
That advocacy has led to another facet of Love, INC. — The Way Café.
Pastor Robin Davis estimates that The Way Café serves a warm, nutritious, free meal to about 30 youth under the age of 18 each night.
“Kids don’t stop being hungry at supper time,” Davis said. “They still need nutritious supper meals.”
Davis is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Kenai. At the beginning of this year, he said the church was looking for ways to make a positive connection in the community. Davis and his leadership team conducted interviews throughout the community to find out what the needs are of the people of the Central Peninsula.
“There seemed to be a common thing that kept coming back from the agencies,” Davis said. “That was to provide nutritious food to kids that couldn’t obtain it otherwise.”
The café operated in the church’s kitchen this summer during its inception and was catered by Paradisos.
“Paradisos stepped up to the plate,” Davis said. “They agreed to fix meals that met the standard for the funding that was available.
“I think it was a good community effort, I doubt (Paradisos) made a nickel on it. But they made wonderful meals.”
The funding came from the state as part of the Alaska Summer Food Program.
However, due to the minimum number of meals Paradisos had to prepare and how many people were coming through, it was not cost effective anymore.
“What we found was being on the edge of town, it just wasn’t working,” Davis said. “Transportation is a huge issue.”
Davis knew the program needed a new location. He called Leslie Rohr, executive director of Love, INC. Davis was put in touch with DeLacee at the Family Hope Center.
Davis and his staff were brought to the back of the building, which used to be known as the Petroleum Club, but hadn’t been used in years.
“A third of the room was full of junk. It had upholstery furnishing where shrews had been living,” Davis said.
Davis and his congregation faced a difficult question.
“Can we do this? Clean this thing up?” Davis asked his congregation.
The answer was unanimous: Yes.
Davis put the word out during a Sunday mass, and told his congregation there was a ministry need. He put the word out beyond his church as well. The clean-up was scheduled for that next Tuesday morning.
Forty people showed up ready to transform the old bar into a safe haven. Their challenge was to bring the kitchen up to code.
“I think that’s a credit the men and women that came and did the wonderful job they did,” Davis said. “They met a very stringent standard.”
Davis and his staff served food that July evening. Davis said the residents of the Merit Inn directly benefit from the café.
“As far as residents go here in the Merit, they’re not allowed to cook in their rooms because of fire standards,” Davis said. “... They’re not able to prepare a decent meal if they were willing to.”
Davis and the church faced another difficult decision when the funding for the program ran out after the summer was over.
“Do we try to do this on our own without the funding?” Davis asked his volunteers. “It was a prayer, step of faith thing.
“We just decided by faith to step out and to do this based on donations.”
The café’s volunteers serve about 25 to 30 youth a night, and have served as many as 55 in one night.
“Everybody’s got to be willing to clean, cook and wait tables,” Davis said. “They have to be willing to sit down and talk to somebody.
“You get folks, who sometimes just need a leg up. They don’t need a hand out, (just) somebody to talk to.”
Davis’ passion for helping the community is clear.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “With the economy the way it is, we see much more of a need. It’s a need that’s easily met.
“It’s not hard to do this, it’s not hard to give people a leg up.”
There are at least 35 unaccompanied youth in the Central Peninsula right now. Most of those students’ needs are being met by the school district, The Way Café, and various other organizations. However, those students may not have a bed to sleep in at night. That is the main reason why a youth shelter has been atop the priority list for quite some time.
Debbie and Dave Michael hosted the Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Youth last year to raise awareness in the Peninsula about the need for the youth shelter.
“For a long time they’ve been a statistic, and we’d like that to change,” Debbie said. “We’d like to have a face and a voice for those kids that are struggling.”
Now in it’s second year, the Michaels hope tonight’s vigil will act as a catalyst to establish housing for homeless youth.
“After (last year’s) vigil, it was amazing how many people came up and said they want to help the kids, and emails saying they needed help for their son or daughter,” Debbie said.
Although the homeless youth problem is on an individual level, the solution must be larger, Debbie said. It will take the entire community to tackle such a large issue.
“To know it’s in your own neighborhood, it seems crazy not to reach out and help them here,” Debbie said.
The face of homeless youth — one that’s ever present in small communities like the Central Peninsula — is what drives the Michaels to reach out.
“Once the problem takes on a face and a name you know, it really blows you away,” Dave said. “It brings it home in a big way. It’s a heartbreak to see teens struggle.”
The Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Youth will take place at Farnsworth Park in Soldotna at 6 p.m. tonight.
To donate to the ForRest Fund, that will contribute to a teen shelter, contact Debbie Michael at 398-3821 or 262-5426, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be directed to: The Warehouse P.O. Box 1075 Soldotna, Alaska 99669.
Logan Tuttle can be reached at email@example.com.